Sex and sexuality on the edge of bedlam

Fri, Feb 1, 2013, 00:00

FIFTY SOMETHING:I was in a bar in historic Salisbury, not far from heathen Stonehenge, a number of years ago. It was the tail-end of a Saturday night and there was a bunch of us hunched over a ring-stained table, our tongues like sandpaper. We’d come from a preview of a play we were working on: four writers, two actors, the director, a couple of bearded techies.

We were a bit wrecked from long nights slaving over hot typewriters, throwing empty styrofoam cups at each other, and hanging out in the auditorium with our feet up on empty seats, watching the lighting guys tumble up and down ladders. Theatre can be such taxing work.

It seemed like a lively bar and, though there would be rewrites to do in the morning, fingers that had stiffened over the keyboard had no problem wrapping themselves around pint glasses. And so there we were. The play was about sex, about coupledom and monogamy, about infidelity and disappointment, about how loyalty can strain under the weight of casual opportunity.

It was a devised piece, and the four writers, of whom I was one, shared our invented characters in an artily promiscuous way, and the project was stimulating and engaging (although possibly more so for the participants than the audience).

Anyway, we were licking up the froth in the noisy bar in our rectangular spectacles and polo-necked sweaters and military boots, and throwing around phrases like “upping the ante” and “gilding the lily”, when I became aware of a hush and then a kind of collective feral growl.

There was a table nearby, and gathered around its perimeter was a bunch of ogling blokes. On top of the table, dancing, trance-like, in cheap platform shoes, was a yellow-haired girl with her knickers in her fist.

I don’t remember how the scene dissolved, whether she got down again or put her underwear back on, or whether the barman cleared the snarling deck of blokes. I do remember her face though. She looked like a big cardboard dolly I used to play with when I was a child. You could move the dolly’s blue eyes back and forth and up and down by adjusting a little cardboard tab on the back of her paper head, but no matter which way she glanced, the expression remained the same: lifeless, glassy, detached.

Presumably, she was somebody’s daughter or lover or friend. She was in the bar with mates; she wasn’t the hired entertainment. I don’t know why she chose to dance on the table without underwear; I don’t know if she was coerced. I don’t know if she was happy or sad or desperate or proud or just absolutely plastered. Presumably she woke up the next morning and put the kettle on, and searched through her dressing-gown pockets for a packet of fags or a painkiller. Maybe later she caught the bus to her auntie’s for her Sunday lunch.

Bedlam beckons

We left the bar soon after the dancer and found ourselves in the darkened square of the market town. All around us was turmoil, the streets ripped with untamed life. There was retching and fighting and urinating and fornicating and screeching and howling and laughing and punching.

We huddled under our disdain all the way home to our temporary beds. The next morning, the church bells rang and the town opened for burly business, the only visible scarring from the night before the occasional crunch of broken glass underfoot.

I thought about the dancing girl this week, when once again yob culture, binge drinking and laddish young girls, reeling through harsh winter streets dressed in sparkling band-aids, hit the news and opinion columns.

This is not a new conversation; this conversation is as old as Methuselah. Pick any old wind-battered night and you’ll find bedraggled hen parties weaving through darkened cobbled streets, pussy cat ears wilting, fishnets wrinkling, gills green from drinking shots in screaming bars.

It is dull to have to reiterate the obvious: nobody wants their daughters lying in gutters, but, equally, nobody should assume that wearing sensible clothes and being tucked up in bed for the nine o’clock news is going to protect women from sexual violence any more than doing the rumba down the high street in a pair of neon hot pants should invite it.

Women experience rape in their homes, in their workplaces, in their grannies’ kitchens and their uncles’ potting sheds.

The play we were writing ended up being quite successful; people in many jurisdictions put their hands in their pockets to see the show. Sex sells, or so they say.

I used to sit in the back of the theatre and think about that night in Salisbury, the bacchanalian bedlam, the anarchy under the clock tower, in that wild and provincial market town. And I thought that no matter how successful the play became, we had failed to interpret, failed even to begin to measure our brutal propensity for chaos and desire.

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